Yesterday, Peter Singer, the famous philosophy professor known for advocating infanticide among other things, posted this blog entry in the New York Times, entitled “Should This Be the Last Generation?” In it, he considers whether the human race should essentially force itself into non-existence, so that we would be the last generation. Why? Because there is too much suffering in the world.
His argument begins with the questions we should ask before having children. Eventually, this branches out into discussion of a recent book by David Benatar entitled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. The argument essentially takes this form:
- Sometimes parents consider whether or not to have children. Sometimes their decision is based on the reasoning that they might pass along some serious disease or genetic defect that could lead to future suffering, and thus they decide not to have children.
- Based on (1), we should conclude that whether or not a child may suffer is a reason to decide not to have children.
- Lots of people suffer in the world. Setting aside the question of genetics and diseases, parents might also consider whether their children might potentially suffer because of third-world conditions, future environmental problems, wars, famines, etc.
- All children will thus suffer to some extent, and many will suffer to a significant extent.
- Based on (4), perhaps it would be better for most people, and perhaps all people, not to have children.
- If we all agreed to it, would it be wrong to sterilize everyone and thereby prevent future suffering of our descendants by ensuring their non-existence?
Admittedly, Singer doesn’t appear to follow this argument to its conclusion. He doesn’t seem to want the human race to end. As he concludes:
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.
And yet, he poses this argument, based on Benatar’s book. The problem with Benatar’s argument (at least as Singer explains it — I haven’t read Benatar’s book myself) is incredibly easy to spot, and I’m amazed that a professional philosopher couldn’t immediately point it out. To quote Singer’s summary:
To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her.
This is clearly an illogical argument on its face. You could argue that “To bring someone into existence who will suffer is to harm that person, but to bring someone into existence who will have a good life will benefit that person.” Or you could argue that there is no moral value in this calculus for either suffering or the “good life.”
But to claim that future suffering is a moral value AND future happiness has no moral value is simply not consistent. That’s not a logical argument — it’s an opinion. And it’s clear that this opinion is based on Benatar’s pessimistic outlook.
A classic pessimist is a person who irrationally tends to overlook the value of good things while focusing on bad ones. An optimist irrationally ignores the bad while crediting the good. Benatar is thus a classic pessimist. That’s his interpretation, but we shouldn’t claim that this is a rational philosophical argument, as Singer would have us believe. Granted, Benatar tries to justify his position:
Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
This isn’t something that Benatar “also argues.” It is absolutely essential to his entire argument, for without asserting that life isn’t worth living, he cannot claim that bringing a new life into a (supposedly) happy existence is morally neutral. Benatar would have us believe that we’re all deceiving ourselves if we think we’re happy.
Who is Benatar to judge this? Instead, shouldn’t we consider empirical evidence? If life is actually so bad that it shouldn’t be inflicted onto anyone, shouldn’t some smart people before Benatar have realized this? And if they had, did they commit suicide immediately? If they didn’t commit suicide immediately, they are preferring to live within a delusion, which Benatar finds to be a morally repugnant state of suffering for any human being.
And yet, Benatar presumably also is living one of these delusional lives of suffering. Why is he still alive? The rational conclusion to his argument implies that he should go out and kill himself immediately rather than continue suffering. Yet he doesn’t. Why?
Essentially, Benatar is just creating a kind of expanded version of Camus’s famous argument about suicide. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus argues that the first question anyone needs to answer is whether or not to commit suicide. Until you come up with a reason not to, no other question is worth considering. Benatar just extends this to the suicide of the human race.
Personally, I think Benatar’s proposal of universal sterilization leading to the death of the human race is morally neutral, since morality is a human creation, and without humans around to judge the morality of the death of the last human, there can be no moral judgment on the matter.
Instead I take issue with the logic of his argument. People apparently have been willing to live in the delusion of their lives for a very long time, long before modern technology raised the standard of living significantly. In the past, almost all humans lived in the third-world conditions that are characterized as suffering in this argument. And yet those people did not kill themselves. They may have been living within a delusion, but they chose to maintain living in that delusion. My guess is that future generations, even if the world gets worse due to environmental disaster, war, famine, whatever will still continue to keep living for the most part, except for some small suicidal fringe.
And that choice is the most telling. We’re not even talking about a “good life.” We’re talking about barely acceptable lives with a lot of suffering. And people for thousands and perhaps millions of years have continued living them, for the most part without killing themselves. There is no “objective” measure of suffering. Suffering can only be evaluated by the one who suffers. And if the person who suffers decides to keep living, that person is obviously not suffering enough to prefer not to exist.
Given that most people throughout history have not committed suicide, it is a reasonable supposition that unless life becomes much worse than it has even been before in the history of humanity, which would be pretty bad, future generations will continue to prefer to live on rather than choose to kill themselves.
Thus, both logically and empirically, Benatar’s argument fails utterly. Moreover, even if it were correct, I still don’t understand why Benatar is still alive, or for that matter, why any of the comments posted on the New York Times in response praising Benatar’s reasoning could ever be posted. All of those persons should have committed suicide immediately upon drawing their conclusion. Otherwise, they are choosing to live in a delusion, and Benatar implicitly claims that such a delusion of a “good life” is worse than non-existence.
Moreover, they are also causing suffering of others by their continued existence. Just about anything anyone does probably leads by some causal chain to the direct or indirect support of our current society, which apparently allows tremendous suffering of innocent children and other people all the time. How can someone believing in Benatar’s argument countenance his continued existence, when every resource he uses and every action he takes could potentially be harming an innocent either now or in the future?
The ultimate conclusion of Benatar’s argument is not communal sterilization, but rather that we should all immediately kill ourselves. Or, at a minimum, we should kill all those who suffer, given that a “good life” is apparently morally neutral, but a suffering one is a moral evil.
But if he proposed going on a killing spree to murder all the suffering people in the world, or even proposed an immediate mass suicide, he’d have been laughed off before his book was published. Yet those are actually the rational conclusions of his argument, given his apparent moral values.
And yet, that’s not the most depressing part. The most depressing thing is not Benatar’s insane pessimism or even Singer’s implicit endorsement of this argument (or something like it that doesn’t quite come to an extreme conclusion), but rather the hundreds of comments posted in response. I never realized so many people were so depressed and pessimistic as to think Benatar’s argument would be reasonable. It’s truly sad. Those people need help.
Finally, it says something about the problems of our society — perhaps they are also in our minds. Would so many people a few generations ago blissfully sign on to a mass sterilization pact for humanity? Sure, there may be environmental problems looming as well as all sorts of other problems. But think about it. Read. Get some historical perspective. No matter how bad you think your life is, if you’re browsing the web and posting on the New York Times website, your life is probably much, much, much, much better than the vast, vast majority of humans who lived in the past.
The problem here isn’t suffering. It’s pessimism. And I’m surprised a philosopher like Singer can’t tell the difference between a rational argument and one simply based on an irrational pessimistic outlook.